There has been no shortage of hype in the media recently over saturated fats. There is a group that avoids saturated fat like the plague, while another promotes things like adding butter to coffee. This has no doubt left many people confused over what to believe. Why this discrepancy? Read on to find out.
Saturated fats are found in fatty cuts of meat and dairy products, such as full fat milk, cheese, cream, and butter. Saturated fat is also found in two plant sources: palm oil and coconut oil. Because of the use of these products in the food industry, processed foods such as pizza, baked desserts, crackers, frozen foods, granola bars etc. tend to be the major source of our saturated fat intake.
The general recommendation to avoid saturated fat is because saturated fat raises our levels of LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, and higher levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Therefore, there is a recommendation to limit the amount of saturated fat consumed. However, this recommendation has been challenged as not all studies have found an association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease risk.
Does this mean you should go back to putting cream in your coffee and butter on your toast? Probably not. The issue with these studies is that they do not explore what nutrient the saturated fat is being replaced with. Typically, lesshealthyreplacements for saturated fat, such as refined grains and added sugars, tend to be the norm. The problem with this is that refined carbohydrates and added sugars reduce HDL levels, or “good” cholesterol, and raise triglyceride levels. This in turn can raise the risk of cardiovascular disease and explains why less cardiovascular disease is not always seen with a reduce saturated fat intake.
From a heart health perspective, saturated fat should still be limited for most people because of its impact on LDL cholesterol. However, what seems to be most important is what we’re replacing the saturated fat with. Rather than replacing saturated fat with refined and added sugar, it needs to be replaced with high quality carbohydrates such as whole grains and/or unsaturated fatty acids. For instance:
- Natural peanut butter (unsaturated fat) instead of butter and cheese (saturated fat) or jam (added sugar) on toast
- Low fat greek yogurt with berries (high quality carbohydrate) rather than full fat greek yogurt (saturated fat) or low fat flavoured yogurt (added sugar)
- Stir fried vegetables sauteed in olive oil (unsaturated fat) seasoned with dried herbs rather than sauteed in butter (saturated fat) and/or seasoned with teriyaki sauce (added sugar)
I am not saying that saturated fat needs to be eliminated, but rather limited. This information also needs to be taken into personal context. For some individuals, such as athletes with high calorie needs, I actually recommend consuming foods high in saturated fat like full fat dairy products. This is because these foods are also a concentrated source of calories and can help meet daily calorie requirements without a huge volume of food. As always, nutrition recommendations should be personalized to you and your unique circumstances and requirements.